Op-Ed: Put on Your Rally Caps!

Op – Ed by Lisa Ventriss, President of Vermont Business Roundtable

Economic development comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s disguised as a preschooler wearing a baseball cap, an outsized glove, and singing ‘Take me out to the ballgame!” That’s right; Vermont’s Lake Monsters, the farm team for the Nationals, is an economic engine. The team is also a community builder, a family therapist, a source of good clean fun, and a ladder to the big leagues for the likes of Red Sox standout Jason Bay and others who have had the privilege of playing on our various teams over the years. Vermonters and our visitors love our minor league baseball; its traditions, players, and memory-making games.

Now, however, there is a threat lurking that could eliminate such a treasure from our midst. I am speaking, of course, about Centennial Field and the concerns raised by the league itself: namely, the substandard condition of the park; the dimensions of the ball field; and the amenities for the players and coaches themselves, which do not meet with league requirements. Significant investments need to be made to improve these deficiencies or else risk losing the team.

As I write this, I am vacationing in Maine with extended family and we, naturally, took in a Portland Sea Dogs home game. Why? Because we are all fans of baseball and the Sea Dogs have 12 alums currently on the Boston Red Sox 25-man roster, including the American League’s MVP Dustin Pedroia. The energy at Hadlock Field, we discovered, is akin to that at Fenway two hours south, and the pride of Portland generates regular sell-out games at its home stadium. A look at their website also reveals a very well-developed and enviable infrastructure to support the team.

In Vermont we have an historic and charming Centennial Field, which dates to 1906 and was adequate for collegiate ball. According to the league, recent improvements to the pitching mound and warning track still leave this 100 year old facility lacking. Even so, Vermont knows how to grow pros. Since 1994, 56 former players from the Vermont Expos and Lake Monsters teams have gone on to play professional ball; including 18 in the 2009 season alone. And there are more stars coming up behind them. Just go to any game and you can see their passion, talent and potential.

Fans of Lake Monsters baseball need to put on our rally caps and generate the kind of support that is strong enough to keep the franchise here; to demonstrate that we appreciate the team, its host UVM, and its owners, and encourage the collaborative public-private solutions to the deficiencies that have been identified by the league. The presence of the Lake Monsters, and before them the Expos, represents a real jewel in the region’s crown. They are as valuable an asset as our other tourist attractions in the region and have the potential to be more so. We must ensure their continued vitality for generations of Vermonters and our visitors yet to hold a baseball glove.

The symbiotic relationship between the University of Vermont’s Centennial Field and the Lake Monsters to date now has the potential to write a new chapter in the history of minor league baseball. We have already lost UVM baseball for reasons beyond our control. Let’s not be accused of losing Lake Monsters baseball because we didn’t do enough to keep them. So, get your rally caps out, get ‘the wave’ going around our community, and make sure we keep it going until we find a solution to this challenge. We want the Lake Monsters to stay in Burlington.